PRISM‘s dashing Poetry Editor Rob Taylor talks to andrea bennett about her new book Canoodlers, and about Florida, food and baby sharks in jars…
There’s a story – andrea bennett
and it happens when I am twelve. There’s the back seat of a car, where my best friend Jane is sitting — I can see her in the rearview. Outside it’s a zoo, according to my mum. Rolling through downtown Hamilton, she says, Some of these people truly belong in cages. She points out the driver’s side window, flicks her fingers at a woman walking. Wouldja look at that, she says, and so I look — crunchy blonde hair, crop top, too-short cut-offs.
Then I say one of those things that emerges from your mouth like a just-born giraffe learning to walk immediately on whatever legs it’s got. It’s just a hop and skip, I say to my mum, between you and her.
In the rearview, a hyena. To my left, a lioness stalking, deciding if now is the time to pounce. That’s the thing, I say to myself. The thing about cages. I get it now.
(Nightwood Editions, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.
PRISM’s own designer (and former Poetry Editor), andrea bennett, has recently published her first poetry collection, Canoodlers (Nightwood Editions, 2014). Canoodlers is lovely and weird and delightful and sad and sharply written all around, and I was very excited to have the opportunity to ask andrea a few questions about the book. It turns out she answers interview questions with as much skill as she writes poems, and I very much enjoyed our exchange.
andrea has been embracing new technologies of late, as you can see from the two author photos she contributed, so we chatted via hologram (I was Narendra Modi, she was Tupac). Ok, we just emailed each other, but a boy can dream…
Our conversation covered a few of andrea’s preoccupations: prose poems, Florida, food, and keeping it real. Jar-sharks, crocodile backscratchers and James Frey all make cameos. And andrea makes “a confession a poet probably shouldn’t make” in her opening reply. What more could you want from us, people? Right, holograms. Next interview, I promise. Until then: get reading!
The majority of the poems in Canoodlers are prose poems – to the point where I was a bit thrown off each time I encountered a line break. What is it about prose poems that you are drawn to? When writing do you find you have a default style/shape that all your poems start in (i.e. everything starts as a prose poem, but some change, or?), and if so, has that default changed over the years?
I used to write tiny opaque little poems. One of the first poems I ever had published, in The Antigonish Review, was maybe 20 words. I had a habit of writing song poems too, not because I have any musical talent whatsoever, but because I lived for awhile in Guelph, and my friends there were mostly musicians – I used to be very involved with the Kazoo! collective, and I loved those people and that time in my life.
Prose poetry became my metier when I started grad school. This was partially because what I wanted to do with my poetry was capture the rhythm and cadence of the way people spoke in my hometown, and partially because I wanted the interconnections between the words and the images in the poems to be subtle and embedded, rather than polished bright at the beginning or end of a line.
Here’s a confession a poet probably shouldn’t make: I can’t hear metre the way that some people are able to hear metre. It’s not a black and white thing to me. I talk funny, slow and clipped, and my family is from England and Jamaica, and I grew up in Hamilton, and to me, the way people speak is so variable that I don’t get standard metre. So every time I try to write a sonnet sequence, it ends up morphing into prose poetry. (“A Week in the House of What Repute” started off as a seven-sonnet sequence, for example, and turned into a long prose-poem during the editing process because it worked better, and was easier to edit, that way.) I don’t have the gall to fail at formal poetry anywhere past the first draft stage. Occasionally I’ll write a poem that works best with line breaks, but I’m never 100% sure about it.
It’s always good to get those big confessions out of the way right off the bat, isn’t it? Now we can take a deep breath and move on to the really serious topics, like Florida. Florida plays a prominent role in a number of these poems. What is your personal relationship to the place, and when you think about it now, does it resonate for you more as a symbol/idea, or as a real, tangible place? What does writing about Florida allow you to talk about in your poems, which would otherwise remain inaccessible?
Just yesterday, my partner Will and I were watching some TV show about people who purchase their own islands, and there was a couple who bought a house on stilts on a small island off Florida for a super-reasonable price – like $400,000 or something. (Living in Vancouver makes that seem like a steal, no?). Will said, when I was visibly excited about mimicking this couple’s choices, that there was no way he’d live in a red state. I corrected him: Florida is a swing state. Florida is a wild card. It’s a Swiss-cheese sinkhole. It can be a violent, and awful, and racist place – and I personally feel like Disneyworld is the most depressing place on earth – but it is also a place where the world’s weirdest people can congregate and feel okay about themselves. Example: the last time I visited my snowbird Nana in Port Charlotte, Florida, I was training for a half-marathon. I went to a gym for my long run and my gym-mates that day included an 80-year-old man in a three-piece suit on a treadmill, a 50-year-old bodybuilder woman with a full-face snake tattoo, and a young man with a rainbow mohawk wearing a vintage weight belt.
My personal relationship to Florida is that my grandparents bought a manufactured house in a gated park for old people in Port Charlotte when I was a kid. My nuclear family did not have a lot of money, but my grandparents did help us fly or drive down to Florida to visit in the winter. My grandparents were a very, very important part of my young life, so being in their home was a reminder for me that I was loved, and that everything would be okay. On top of that, Florida was so different than Ontario – like someone had turned the colour dial up on the TV that was my life. Hot-pink ibises, green crocodiles, turquoise water, trees and vines and creatures everywhere. Giant flea markets. Baby sharks in jars. Crocodile backscratchers. Weird, simultaneous reminders of life and death, just everywhere. I’m not sure, exactly, if that comes through in the poems, but that sums up the practical and symbolic backdrop of the poems set in Florida.
“All you need to know about gators” also deals with a different kind of (in)accessibility. I’m estranged from my mother, and we always had an intense and fraught relationship, and I spent much of the first part of my life just trying to understand who she was. One way I did this was to surreptitiously interrogate my grandparents, when I had them to myself. “All you need to know about gators” takes place after my grandfather passed away; it was probably the last time, and the most straightforward time, I tried to press my Nana for information.
Yes, that all comes through (though I could have used a few more jar-shark references throughout). Another dominant theme in Canoodlers is food, though it dominates from the periphery. Food and the making of food sneaks in as simile (“You can put your fingers on the feelings // like you can put your fingers into the cake”, p. 52), and metaphor (“I am baking, says summer”, p. 18), and background noise (“Meanwhile we’re watching a marathon special of the celebrity chef cooking show”, p. 51), while most often not being the the central theme of the poem. The food that sneaks in is most often of the fast and commercial variety – Waffle Cones and Cracker Jacks and “eating only pizza every meal” (49). All of this seems to align very well with North American food culture, where food is in many ways our obsession, but at the same time is not given due attention or care (and skyrocketing-off go our obesity rates): food is everywhere and nowhere; it’s all we care about and it’s not worth our time.
Could you speak a bit about the role of food in the book, and its connection with the emotional themes in Canoodlers? Similar to my question about Florida, what did talking about food allow you to get at that you couldn’t address directly?
Appetite, consumption, compulsion, shame, desire – all of these things are wrapped up in food, for me, and food is a way to get at these things sideways. North American food culture is such a complex thing. Quinoa and soy versus Oreo and hot dogs – whether you’re a Whole Foods-shopping vegan or a vegetable-eschewing McDonald’s eater, you probably can’t avoid making some ethically dicey choices, and your choices are also, probably, bound up in your class position. Moreover, we have a tendency to equate food with bodies, in the sense that your body is a physical manifestation of your choices. If you’re fat, especially if you’re a fat woman, it’s hard not to internalize that as some kind of moral failing. The food-themed poems are, I think, a way for me to get at who I am, and where I’m at, and what undercurrents are pulling me out to sea. Sometimes I make the poems first-person plural, or a cheeky second-person, because I think these feelings are somewhat common.
The back cover of Canoodlers features three blurbs, and two of them make a common observation. Rhea Tregebov suggests the poems in the book “carry an absolute authenticity”, while John Paul Fiorentino says “There is an impressive authenticity… in these poems.” “Authentic” is not a word I’ve seen used to describe poetry books too often, and there it is – back to back – on your book jacket!
It got me thinking, what does “authentic” mean? Is it simply a code for “non-fiction”, assessed at the Oprah Winfrey/James Frey level? Is it about having a voice that sounds “real,” regardless of the subject matter? Or does it necessarily have to be both, the alignment of “truth” and a “real” voice? And then on top of that there is the whole hornets nest of felt truth v. literal truth. My point being: the word confounded me, even while at the same time instinctually feeling accurate in regards to your collection.
I wonder then how you feel when you hear people describe your book as “authentic”. What do you interpret it to mean? How do you think telling people your book is “authentic” might affect how it’s read and received? Does it matter to you if people think the poems in the book are “true” or not?
Ooh, all good questions. I wonder if “authentic” has something to do with class? Like some of the poems are quite blunt and straightforward on the surface, and I’ve consciously incorporated colloquialisms. Maybe that’s the “real” voice you’re mentioning. Maybe it is a nice way of saying “unsophisticated” :).
The poems in Canoodlers are mostly non-fiction, but they play a little fast and loose in the way that I probably wouldn’t in a prose memoir – a few characters are composite characters, a few names have been changed. (Nothing approaching the James Frey variety of truth-stretching.) Most everything in the book comes directly from my life, and I’ve tried to be honest about myself as a character and a narrator.
I think people approach non-fiction with a different set of expectations than fiction, so in that way I’d prefer that readers have a sense that the events in the poems are “true.” I think Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill plays with these expectations of truth and autobiography in a super-interesting way, and that book, as well as the film True Stories, were both methods of story-telling I had in mind when I was writing Canoodlers.
When people describe my book as “authentic,” I guess, overall, I accept that description. Like oh, okay, if there are a handful of people saying that, then that’s a reader reception I should pay some attention to.
As a younger writer who both has her first book out and is active in the publishing world (through your work with PRISM international, Geist, CWILA and more), you seem to be in a prime position to give younger writers advice about navigating their way to their first book. If you had one piece of advice to give an aspiring young poet about that journey, what would it be? Are there any common pieces of advice out there that you think aren’t actually that helpful, or perhaps that have become irrelevant as technology has altered the publishing world?
Ha ha. I’m turning thirty this year, so I guess I am a youngish writer, but as a human being I’m finally seriously considering a lot of life choice things like marriage and kids and financial responsibility. (I tried out taking on more financial responsibility this year, in the form of owning a car and living in a nice, spacious apartment, and it was not a fit.) That comprises my first point of advice to young writers: prioritize your writing, and understand that that might be somewhat painful on the “life” front: maybe your childhood and university friends will be buying houses, and celebrating career milestones, and you’ll be like, “What’s a career?” and “How am I scraping rent together next month?”
Maybe you have rich/supportive parents, and all the power to you. Maybe you don’t. It’s still worth taking the risk. You’re a smart person. If the writing thing doesn’t work out, you can always take some college classes that focus on concrete skills and insert yourself into some kind of profession where people get health benefits. (Is this depressing? Sorry. I have a friend who is a doctor and a poet. If you can balance a career you love with your poetry-writing, you are amazing!)
I think the journey to a first poetry book is in some ways the same as it has always been: work hard on your writing and find your community. In some ways it’s easier now, because you can make friends with writers you admire on Twitter, rather than just reading their work from afar and hoping to maybe run into them at a conference or a festival. Also, it has been helpful for me to be knowledgeable about my field. It has definitely been helpful to be involved with magazines and literary journals – you get to see a side of the process you wouldn’t see otherwise, and you get to feel truly connected to publishing. Lastly, introduce yourself to writers whose work you admire in respect, either over email, or in person. Be a little gutsy about it.